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Row erupts over Economist Building revamp

A proposal by DSDHA to refurbish and remodel the Smithsons’ Brutalist, Grade II*-listed scheme has been questioned by leading architects

The practice has submitted a planning application to Westminster Council on behalf of site owner, developer Tishman Speyer, for changes to the building’s three towers and public space on the St James Street site.

The trio of towers and the central square, designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson, was completed in 1964 and is now regarded as a triumph of post-war Brutalist architecture.

The plans include minor extensions to the towers’ rooflines, space for new shops, the removal of an entrance canopy, new circular skylights in the plaza surface allowing light into a subterranean gallery, widened steps into Bury Street and the introduction of a spiral staircase serving Ryder Street.

A planning statement produced by DSDHA said: ‘Our proposals are based on a pragmatic and respectful approach to conservation within the context of the listed building setting, striking a balance between the preservation of original design intent, features and character, with the need to safeguard the future of the Economist Plaza.’

While the AJ understands that Historic England and The Twentieth Century Society are broadly backing the plans, a number of architects have voiced criticism.

A statement by Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, co-directors of the Architecture Research Unit at London Metropolitan University, said: ‘The various proposed new interventions by DSDHA are relatively well argued, and in some cases strategically well thought-out, yet in other cases they are not improvements in our opinion.’

Among a number of criticisms, the pair said a proposed new white pre-cast concrete spiral staircase to connect the Economist Plaza with Ryder Street was ‘unnecessary and badly judged’.

Despite praising a number of aspects of the proposals, they said that ‘the level of architectural concept and quality is not fresh or inspirational’.

Peter St John, partner at Caruso St John Architects, said the plaza did ‘not need to be altered to accommodate coffee shops and art galleries [and] less importantly, the changes are badly conceived’.

And Smithsons expert Dirk van den Heuvel, head of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre at Delft University of Technology, said: ‘It would have been very interesting if the architects had studied the relationships with the urban scenography of the surrounding streets and façades, in terms of picturesque planning and the Brutalist interest in mobility and modernisation.

‘Despite the respectful way of “upgrading” the buildings to contemporary uses, I don’t think the current architects achieve the same level of sophistication in that sense.’

The new ryder street stair creates new connection and movement route from street to plaza and basement levels

The new ryder street stair creates new connection and movement route from street to plaza and basement levels

However, despite voicing some criticisms, Patrick Lynch, director at Lynch Architects – whose practice had hoped to be selected for the Economist Plaza scheme – said that he ‘had no problem’ with DSDHA’s approach (see below).

Historic England, in its official response to the planning application, said it was generally supportive of the proposals.

It pointed out that the changes would remove some of the ‘unsympathetic alterations’ made by Skidmore Owings & Merrill during the 1990s.

In a letter to Westminster planners, Nigel Barker, Historic England’s London planning and conservation director, said: ‘The current proposals for the complex include bringing the buildings up to modern-day requirements but in a more sensitive manner and responding to the original design concepts of the Smithsons.’

While it is understood The Twentieth Century Society is also broadly backing the scheme, no official statement from the heritage group has yet been published.

DSDHA and Tishman Speyer both declined to comment. However, the practice’s planning statement said its masterplan framework approach to the site ‘ensures that the redevelopment does not continue the piecemeal modification that has characterised the site since completion’.

Comments:

John Tuomey, director O’Donnell + Tuomey

The Economist cluster is the most important building by Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s an articulate example of their restless search for an ’architecture without rhetoric’. The plaza is a welcome place of calm between busy streets, a place of ’ordinariness and light’, a place to pause and pay attention to the silent conversation between different scales of architecture. Its stone yardscape is not in need of further activation. Piccadilly Circus is nearby, if activation is what you’re looking for, and every piece of architecture isn’t going to be improved by another coffee shop. Here is a quiet place. The city needs its quiet places. Some things are worth preserving, and this is a special case for careful maintenance, less change, not more.

Smithsons_Economist3

Smithsons_Economist3

Patrick Lynch of Lynch Architects

In general, the proposals by Tischman Spier and DSDHA for The Economist Building and Plaza seem sensible, sensitive to the original architect’s intentions and properly critical of subsequent changes – and where appropriate – weaknesses in the original design. Removing the entrance canopy to the office tower and the single story extension on Bury Street, installed by SOM in the 1990s, is appropriate, as is fixing the eccentric, primitive air-con system. Reorganising the interior of the former bank building also seems correct and intelligent; the new shops will undoubtedly animate the rather barren plaza.

Our competition entry last year also included a number of these proposals, as well as an idea to introduce a new staircase connecting Ryder Street to the plaza. The Ryder Street façade has always suffered from being the entrance to the underground car park, and the plaza has suffered as a consequence from being 1/2 a storey up – in effect the result of having a basement for cars beneath it. Despite The Smithson’s evocative later rhetoric, it wasn’t ever really like an Italian public space; but more like an American type of semi-public space, hence the term “plaza”, perhaps?

Sketch plan

Sketch plan

The Economist Building was the first air-conditioned office in London, and in general it suffers the architect’s uncritical devouring of American corporate modernism, including a misplaced early enthusiasm for cars. Their later work adjusts this approach, and I see no reason not to bring this project up-to-date with their more mature late-modernist design philosophy detailed in publications like Italian Thoughts.

While it is obviously seen as controversial by some, DSDHA’s proposal to extend the plaza and to remove the car park and its entrance has a series of urbanistic and architectural benefits I believe. The introduction of a basement art gallery space will provide a boon to the people who live in and use this part of St James. The change in emphasis from cars to bike storage is encouraging. A more active street frontage will undoubtedly improve the character of Ryder Street.

The new staircase seems to me to be relatively discreet, and at first impression it seems to be quite skilfully handled; in presenting itself as a new insertion, it combines best heritage practise with a degree of appropriate modesty and respect for the the existing project.

To my eye, the left hand wall of the stair should be Portland Stone, not ‘white’, as this would suggest ‘ground’ better. The glazed panels to the right of the stair are more problematic through, as this appears as it it is an entrance, which it isn’t. Perhaps settings the glazing back would help emphasise the horizon of the bridge/balustrade above? It might also benefit from being more solid, or at least a thicker frame.

These observations are not meant as reasons not to do it, but rather questions to the designers that of course require more thought, things that would be conditioned by Westminster City Council if planning consent were to be granted. At this stage, I have no problem with the architect’s and their client’s strategy, which seems sound enough.

It makes sense to try to get some daylight down into the new basement art gallery space. I’m not so keen on flush, circular pavement lights, but you can understand the logic in relating these new elements to each other. The staircase looks dominate on the plan, but the CGI suggests convincingly that in fact it will be quite a subtle addition, at least to my mind. I might be wrong, but I’d say that it’d be clear in the future that another good architect has been involved in reworking the original building - and we would all be grateful if this were the fate of our projects.

Economist plaza crop

Economist plaza crop

View of plaza: before (left) after (right)

It’s important to creatively criticise listed buildings and in particular to get beyond modish devotion to them as examples of this or that ‘style’, if they are to remain useful parts of our cities. The addition of extra floors was always going to be inevitable in this context, and current planning policy in Westminster is not to terminate buildings with plant rooms – so I don’t think anybody was ever not going to try to rationalise the plant room and create more office space in this location. Doing so would pay for the essential repairs to the rest of the scheme.

My fear is that the range of possible veil-like cladding materials offered for the top floors, as a way to try to preserve the impression of a solid top, while allowing views out, may result in what the much-lamented townscape and heritage consultant Francis Golding might typically have called “a Bugger’s Muddle”: aka a heritage fudge. It’s a tricky problem; one we’re not entirely happy not to have, but also a wonderful challenge for a creative architect. We wish our colleagues luck.

Roof line sketches

Roof line sketches

 

Catherine Croft of the Twentieth Century Society

Any alteration to any work by the Smithsons always generates a huge amount of interest, perhaps because they built so little, and so many architects were influenced by their charismatic teaching and writing. With Robin Hood Gardens tragically facing imminent demolition, emotions are running especially high.

Although listed grade II*since1988, The Economist Building (a group of three buildings clustered on a raised piazza) has been significantly altered in the past. In 1990, a scheme by SOM infilled some of the colonnades around the piazza, reconfigured the interiors and altered some of the steps up to the piazza.

’The current scheme unpicks some of the 1990 alterations, but does not reinstate the original Smithson’s design’

The current scheme by DSDHA, unpicks some of the 1990 alterations, but does not reinstate the original Smithson’s design. In part this is because the use of the space has changed. Where once the piazza was a quiet zone of contemplation, it is now busy with office workers having coffees and sandwiches. The original basement car park, with its unsightly roller shutter door is also redundant.

Whilst it is normally conservationists who are accused of wanting to preserve historic buildings in aspic, in this case C20 Society is supporting modest alterations, proposed by DSDHA after extensive study of the original design intentions and the evolution of the project through numerous site visits and pre-application consultations. Some Smithson’s fans would prefer to see the Economist meticulously restored to its original form, but this has never been the intention of the current proposals, and nor is it a reasonable strategy. Unless buildings are going to be preserved as monuments or museums, they do need to respond to changing circumstance. It would be fantastic to have a study centre for C20 architecture, and the Economist Building would be a perfect location, but sadly there is currently no the funding to achieve this.

 

 

Readers' comments (3)

  • This is a thoughtful piece of work which unpicks some of the accretional changes to the Smithson's original in an intelligent way.

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  • Wouldn't it be better if the images provided to illustrate the scheme were like for like? The proposal certainly reduces clutter but the pictures provided accentuate this unfairly by not removing everyday life from the [BEFORE] while removing it from the [AFTER].

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  • Chris Rogers

    "The Economist Building was the first air-conditioned office in London" - actually that honour appears to belong to the block on the corner of Charles II Street and Regent St, recently reclad and remodelled but originally by Trehearnes and Leslie C. Norton, and home to the UK Atomic Energy Authority; it was built in 1955-58.

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